There was some surprise when Microsoft announced a new Halo game was in the works for the Xbox 360. Most people were aware that Bungie had ended their involvement with the franchise and that 343 had been given the job of taking on the massive task of continuing Microsoft’s flagship game. But many assumed any new Halo game would only be seen in the next gen. Microsoft had other ideas, however.
Microsoft knows that Halo is such a big name, it can rely on it to help sell its hardware. Halo has however seen a dip in form. Halo 3 was a decent game, but many of its criticisms were aimed at the fact that it didn’t feel like a next gen game. For all its flashy HD graphics, it was far too similar to 1 and 2, and it never really hit the heights of the two games that made the original Xbox a must have. Halo Wars was an interesting diversion from the norm, but was a retail flop. Reach was again, a good game, but only ever felt like a spin off, and the lack of Master Chief meant it lacked that familiar heroic focal point. So to Halo 4 – and 343 – fell the responsibility to rebuild Halo’s reputation and prepare the franchise to be once again, the system seller Microsoft needs for whenever the next gen finally arrives. So does it and did they pull it off?
Halo 4 starts immediately in very familiar territory. First impressions centre around the graphical improvements in game and the impressive cut scenes. Whilst Halo 4 doesn’t ditch its trademark vivid use of colour, it has added a greater degree of realism to everything. Halo has always used a wide range of colour to separate itself from the stock green and brown which creeps into a lot of sci fi shooters these days and this has at times, given it an almost cartoony feel in previous games. The blend between realism and fantastical is handled well here though and much of the game, in particular the indoor areas, looks a lot like it has borrowed plenty of ideas from Mass Effect. As mentioned before, the opening to Halo 4 feels very familiar. The Covenant are back, albeit with new voiceover work finally. Weapons are the same and I started to wonder if any lessons had been learnt from Halo 3.
As the story evolves (and I won’t hint at any plot details apart from to say, its an excellent story and one of the major plus points) you carry the Chief and nicely remodelled Cortana to a new setting and the game really starts to fly. The game for me kicked off after one of those moments that really takes your breath away. Think of that moment you first walked out onto the wasteland of Fallout 3, or the first steps onto the first Halo. New enemies appear, new weaponry is usable, and the game begins to feel much fresher whilst still being Halo. Again, skimming over potential plot spoilers, the new enemies are different to the Covenant, and thankfully not like the Flood and nowhere near as annoying. They are different and take a degree of patience to learn about, working out different ways to dispose of them with different weaponry takes time, but this makes the game that bit more satisfying and its far better than manically shooting away at hordes of Flood mutations.
Vehicle use returns and the usual suspects are all present. Warthogs, Ghosts, Scorpions and Banshees are all present, but also thrown into the mix is the chance to fly a UNSC Pelican. Whilst it is only a brief chance, its a worthwhile moment if only for its Battlestar Galactica Viper style take off.
As with most Halo games, the campaign feels a lot longer than it actually is. I’m no Halo expert, but playing through on Heroic took me just shy of 10 hours. I’m not one for rushing through games, but it seems that running time is about normal these days for first person shooter campaigns. The additional challenges are there for completists; Skulls and finding terminals are fodder for repeat playthroughs.
There is a huge amount to admire about Halo 4 and without doubt, it has re-energised a flagging franchise. It’s doubtful that it will attract non Halo fans to the franchise, for all of its improvements, it is still very Halo at its core, but it feels like that next gen Halo game fans have been waiting for since Halo 3 underwhelmed. Where 343 have really pushed the series is in its narrative. Fleshing out the Master Chief’s backstory and also tapping into his relationship with Cortana (not spoilers!) has really lifted the series, and lifted Halo back into the front of all Microsofts franchises. When the next gen arrives, Halo has now been repositioned from inevitable game waiting to happen, to Microsoft’s biggest bullet in the gun for the next gen war.